Whether you're a homebuyer, seller or an owner, you probably have one central question about this market: Where are prices headed from here?
You can gain some insight into the pricing puzzle by focusing not just on home values, but on rental rates.
Housing economists have long used a home price/rent ratio as one way to gauge whether or not home prices are inflated or undervalued.
Moreover, on a very practical level, relating home prices to rents can give you a more detailed view of whether there's a financial payoff to homeowning, says Gary Smith, Pomona College professor and co-author of "Houseonomics."
A housing P/E
The use of a price/rent ratio is analogous to employing a price/earnings ratio for stocks. When a stock price is high, and its earnings per share relatively low, the P/E is high. A high P/E often indicates that the stock is too expensive and the share price is headed for a drop.
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What someone is willing to pay to rent a place is that home's "earnings." And, just as in the stock market, a high home price related to the rental earnings mean homes values will probably drop.
For a specific look at how a home's P/E is determined, let's consider a home that is listed for either rent or sale in suburban Chicago.
The home has been rented for the past three years for $1,600 per month. It is currently listed for sale at $400,000. Dividing the price by the total annual rent of $19,200 gives a "housing P/E" of 20.83. According to Moody's Economy.com, the long-run average housing P/E is 16, so a P/E of 20.83 suggests that this home may be somewhat overpriced.
Getting back to normal?
A look at the national home price/rent ratio over the past few years shows a heated run-up in prices, and a consequent deflating of the "bubble."
Housing economist Celia Chen of Moody's Economy.com tracks a nationwide index of median home prices to median rents. She reports that the ratio hit a peak of about 25 at the end of 2005. Since then, home prices have been sliding and the ratio has been dropping.
In the first quarter of this year, says Chen, the ratio is down to about 20, which is closer to its long-run average of 16.
Comparing median prices to rents is useful for tracking broad trends. But how rents compare to home prices varies considerably in different areas of the country.